It’s A Mystery: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
By Craig Johnson
The two genres of crime fiction and the Western developed practically side by side in the United States. The frontier tale
and stories of crime and detection are closely connected in the history of American popular literature. The link between the two has existed almost from their beginnings or even before, since
it can be argued that America’s fictional frontiersmen and the private eyes so popular in crime fiction have a common
ancestor: the questing knights of Arthurian legend. The best of them are guided by the code of chivalry, the medieval system
of knighthood with its attendant duties and responsibilities.
Chivalry embodied the medieval conception of the ideal life, where valor, courtesy, generosity, and dexterity in arms were the peak of every man’s attainment. The true knight was brave, daring, and honorable, using his advantages to help the poor and the weak. A contemporary definition of chivalry would include the concept of selflessly putting oneself at risk to protect another, above and beyond the call of duty.
The theme of chivalry occurs throughout mystery fiction. The chivalrous detective becomes involved in solving crimes through concern for the victim and/or because of a strong sense of justice. As I’ve written in a previous column, the twentieth century spawned a special breed of private eyes. They are more private avengers than private eyes and their creators, to a man, characterize them as modern knights. They can all trace their origins to Sam Spade, whose most notable quality is his absolute adherence to a private code of ethics. Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe, often regarded as the quintessential tough guy, was in fact described by his creator as “A modern knight in search of a hidden truth.” (Chandler originally intended to name his detective Mallory, after Sir Thomas Malory whose chivalric romance, Le Morte d’Arthur, written in 1485, dramatizes the heroic deeds of the Arthurian knights.) John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee calls himself a “…salvage expert. It’s not the promise of a reward but a quixotic sense of knight-errantry.” McGee displays qualities similar to Ross Macdonald’s sleuth Lew Archer: “He’s not the usual peeper…he operates with a quiet moral center.” And to Robert Parker’s Spenser, spelled appropriately because “He’s a Boston private eye with the build of a prizefighter and the soul of a poet.”
Hands down, my pick for knight errant of the 21st century is Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire, who has been maintaining order on his own terms in Wyoming’s Absaroka County for thirty years. The erudite Longmire, who is as sassy as he is literate, is an unforgettable character. In Hell Is Empty, the seventh book in this stellar series, Walt Longmire and his deputy Sancho find themselves escorting a group of convicts through the Bighorn Mountains to meet a convoy of federal agents and sheriffs from neighboring counties. One of the convicts, a psychopath named Raymond Shade, recently confessed to burying the body of a Native American boy. Shade, who is headed for death row in Utah, escapes and takes off into the icy hell of the Cloud Peak wilderness. Despite the warnings of his deputy that he’s being led into a trap, armed with his Colt .45 and Sancho’s dog-eared copy of Dante’s Inferno (it’s unclear which gives him more comfort), Walt sets off alone on the killer’s trail.
This was when a smart man would’ve waited for backup, and I thought about it. It was going to take hours for my reinforcements to get here, if they ever did, and I had a federal agent and a transport officer being held hostage. I applied the simple rule that allowed me to make stupid decisions in these types of situations: if I was down there, would I want someone coming after me?
Yep…. I’ve got two innocent people being led off to God-only-knows-where by a schizophrenic psychopath.
He might not have been so ready to step off the precipice of sanity if he knew what was in store for him. But that’s the thing about the chivalrous, they wear blinders so as not to be able to look before leaping. Bad guys, bad weather, a “whiteout … so thick you could’ve cut sheep out of the air with a sharp knife”, dangerous wildlife—it’s a lonely, treacherous journey, almost “a doomed struggle,” until Longmire encounters an unlikely guardian angel, Virgil White Buffalo, wearing the head and cape of a gigantic grizzly bear, the gargantuan (seven-and-a-half foot) Crow Indian keeps him from turning into “sheriff Popsicle.”
There may have been stranger places in which I’ve woken up than Virgil White Buffalo’s cave in the Bighorns, but I can’t remember where they might’ve been….I studied my host, crouched over the fire, and could’ve sworn a bear was cooking my supper. “I thought there weren’t any grizzlies in the Bighorns.”
“There aren’t.” He picked up a wooden spoon and dipped it into the concoction…. “Anymore.”
Virgil White Buffalo was a legend, and last summer I’d mistakenly arrested him for the murder of a young Asian woman. He’d assisted me in apprehending the actual culprit but then melted into the Bighorn Mountains.
“Where did you get the head and cape, Virgil?”
He stopped stirring…”He was a neighbor, but we ended up not getting along.”
By this time Walt is past the point of no return, his journey evokes Dante’s Inferno, brilliantly mirroring its symbolism. Johnson’s signature blending of the supernatural, the surreal, and the hallucinatory with what’s real and tangible has never been better handled. This one is a winner.
The debut novel in this series, The Cold Dish (2005), introduces the charismatic Longmire, and the Sheriff instantly wins your admiration with his humility, integrity, and humor. He tells us his sleuthing began during his tour in Vietnam. He can recognize Prokofiev’s First Symphony, and he sprinkles his narration with allusions to Aristotle, Shakespeare and Coleridge, among others. He’s a study in contradictions, crazily courageous, deceptively vulnerable, he’s fastidious about the company he keeps but has to check his frying pans for mouse turds. Physically, Walt is saddened by the fact that he is more Hoot Gibson than Gary Cooper. And he is admittedly flawed in some of his investigative choices. Johnson has said: “I despise the all-capable, all-knowing, physically perfect protagonist. My idea of hell would be to be trapped in a four-hundred-page, first-person monologue with a person like that.”
Sheriff Walt Longmire’s best friend is Henry Standing Bear, they’ve known each other since grade school, and Henry considers it his Native American duty to keep Walt politically correct. Don’t say half-breed, say bicultural. When they played The Lone Ranger as kids, Henry “let” Walt play Tonto.
Henry had made a halfhearted attempt at the white man’s educational system at Berkeley and had learned enough to protest against it before being rewarded for his efforts with an all-expense-paid, four-year vacation with the Special Forces at An Khe…. Upon his return, he had transformed an old Sinclair station into a half-assed bar he called The Red Pony. Henry had been known to read a great deal of Steinbeck…. The dark hair, the dark skin, the dark eyes, it was like he was carved out of mahogany. Some Golem of the Northern Cheyenne, but I knew the heart that rested there.
The first western hero in American fiction was James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo. Natty’s Indian comrade, Chingachgook, who becomes Natty’s companion in other volumes, enters his life in The Deerslayer (1841). The last of The Leatherstocking Tales to be written, it is the novel of Bumppo’s youth—his attachment to the Delaware chief begins there. The distance between Bumppo/Chingachgook and Longmire/Standing Bear is not wide at all.
Henry and Walt are the two main characters in Craig Johnson’s seven novels populated by the quirkiest collection of functional eccentrics you will have the pleasure of meeting. Johnson writes like a dream, there is nobody quite like him.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.